A Middle Eastern garden is often called a “Paradise Garden,” because in recent centuries, they represented the Garden of Eden and the descriptions of the heavenly Paradise found in holy texts. Because of their association with religious themes, they consist chiefly of specific elements important to the culture and region.
But while many modern Middle Eastern gardens are created in an Islamic style, it’s more accurate to say that Islamic-style gardens evolved from those from ancient Persia. And while they have always featured Middle Eastern plants, it’s form and structure that defines a Paradise Garden, rather than the botanical aspects.
Middle East Garden Traditions
Middle Eastern garden traditions go back thousands of years. In ancient Persia, they were a symbol of wealth and power. There’s nothing more impressive than a flourishing garden filled with fruit and abundant water in the middle of a desert.
When Arabian Muslims adopted the style, they associated elements of the Islamic garden with the elements of Paradise, or Heaven. Many Medieval-era garden designers based their designs on descriptions of the Garden of Eden from the Quran.
Most features of Middle Eastern garden design have a religious significance, but as the style predates Islam, many of them are practical, as well.
History of the Middle Eastern Garden Style
Alexander the Great recorded on of the earliest examples of a Persian garden style in 330 B.C. His record of the tomb of Cyrus the Great, north of Shiraz, Iran, contain the classic Middle Eastern garden elements of water features, fruit trees, and flowers, arranged in symmetrical geometric shapes.
When Muslims conquered Persia in the 7th century, they adapted these garden forms and likened them to the promised Paradise of the afterlife. They created new paradise gardens as the religion spread throughout the Mediterranean, Spain, and North Africa.
The types of gardens built in the Middle East style have far exceeded the boundaries of the Islamic world. They also reached as far east as India with the Islamic Mughal Empire. Islamic gardens in India often surrounded a central tomb. The most famous example of these is the Taj Mahal.
How Middle East Gardens are Designed
To design your own Middle Eastern garden, start with the structure first.
Islamic gardens are laid out in geometric squares, sometimes rectangles. You’ll need to identify the central part of your new garden space, and then divide that into four equal sections, starting at the center.
Use paths or water canals to divide the sections. The paths and planting beds should be symmetrical, as well.
Create Your Own Middle East Garden
You don’t need exotic plants or an arid climate to bring a little bit of paradise to your own garden space. It’s the use of specific design elements that make it a Middle Eastern garden.
Symmetry is a design element hearkening back to religious foundations. Most Middle Eastern gardens are designed to be perfectly symmetrical, evoking the Islamic teaching that humans are meant to reflect a God-centered afterlife in their time on earth. Symmetry also calls to mind the Islamic notion that, in paradise, all things hang in a perfect and harmonious balance.
Islamic gardens are meant to intersect with and enhance aspects of the Islamic faith. The gardens’ reflective and meditative aims, as well as their transcendence of worldly concerns, certainly embody this.
You can create a Paradise Garden in any climate using any plants, as long as you stick to the defining principals and critical elements:
In ancient times, Persian gardens were usually enclosed. Sometimes, they were enclosed by walls, but more normally, they were the central feature of a home, with buildings surrounding a private courtyard.
Most Islamic gardens sit behind high walls to block out outside noises and influences. The courtyard provides a secluded area with shade and beauty far from public view.
The courtyard garden also allows the exterior of homes to remain modest. Many devout followers avoid ostentatious displays of wealth. The interior courtyard allows them to enjoy the beauty of nature without attracting undue attention.
A typical Middle Eastern garden is constructed based on the Islamic principles of paradise, peace, and tranquility, and is intended to be a place of reflection away from the world.
The formal symmetrical layout is one of the key features of any Middle Eastern garden. The interior structure of Middle Eastern gardens follows the concept of “Charbagh” or a four-fold garden. In this design, the entire space is divided into four quadrants and separated by four water channels or walking paths.
The primary element of any Islamic garden are water features. These water elements are normally modeled from the description in the scripture of the spring in the Garden of Eden that split into four rivers.
The earliest Islamic countries sat in desert climates where water and greenery was scarce. It was the intent of the garden to provide a place of respite from the hot and arid world.
Water features in an Islamic garden include ponds, canals, and rills. These waterways often followed the formal, “four-fold” layout of the garden.
Sometimes fountains and waterfalls are used, although they are less common. All add a musical aspect to the garden with the sound of moving water, as well as helping to increase humidity and cool the air in the harsh desert conditions.
Shade also plays an important role in the reflective quality of a Middle Eastern garden design. With plentiful water, plants that may not otherwise grow in desert climates can thrive.
Wide-leafed plants like palms are frequently features of Middle Eastern gardens. Man-made shade, in the forms of archways, intricate screens, and covered sitting areas, are also typical.
The courtyard garden style allows shade from any angle of the sun at any time of year. High stone walls also provide protection that allows more delicate plants to survive.
Fruit trees are key to Middle Eastern gardens, and many of the structural elements, such as waterways and surrounding walls, are key to their survival.
In Islamic gardens, fruit trees are planted in sunken areas. This allows the visitor to easily reach ripe fruit whenever walking past. It also helps collect any rainfall, helping the trees to thrive in a harsh environment.
Traditional trees for this style include figs, dates, pomegranate, and olive trees. Orange trees also became very popular, but mainly or the sweet scent of their flowers. Truly edible oranges weren’t cultivated until the 15th and 16th century.
Along with the sweet smell of orange blossoms, other fragrant plants and flowers are traditional for Middle Eastern gardens. Aromatic herbs and trees were also featured. Many were referenced in the Quran for medicinal use.
Mosaics and tile work
Mosaics are a key component of Islamic gardens. Most Islamic traditions forbid displaying people and animals in art, but mosaics of geometric patterns and botanical themes feature large in Middle Eastern gardens.
This is another area where the religious meets practical application. Along with adding beauty, tilework is also much easier to maintain than grass lawns in an arid climate.
Top Middle East Garden Plants
While you don’t need to restrict yourself to dry climate plants to build your own Paradise Garden, it’s a good idea to know which ones are traditional.
Date palms are popular fruit trees across the Middle East and Mediterranean regions. They flourish and fruit under the harsh sun with very little water. Unless you live in zones 10 and 11, you may have trouble growing a date palm to fruit. However, they’re still beautiful and offer plenty of shade.
Lemon or Orange
Citrus trees were once added to Middle Eastern gardens because of the heady scent of their flowers. They were not cultivated for fruit, as the original species were inedible. In modern times, however, they make excellent fruit trees for an Islamic garden.
Horticulturists have worked diligently to produce citrus trees that stand up to quite a bit of cold weather. However, grow your citrus in large containers if you live in a temperate climate of Zone 7 or lower and overwinter them indoors.
Aromatic herbs are ubiquitous to Middle Eastern gardens. Some of the most heat and drought tolerant specimens are those from the region. Best of all, they’re some of the most popular herbs for cooking.
Rosemary, thyme, sage, and oregano are all fragrant and stand up to harsh conditions. Most people don’t associate lavender and chamomile with the Middle East, but they are quite drought tolerant once established.
If you’re looking for something more exotic, plant ginger and turmeric in damp areas of your garden.
Pomegranate Trees are another popular fruit tree addition to the Middle Eastern garden. They’re native to the Middle East and do best in hardiness zones 7 to 11. Look for dwarf varieties if you have a smaller garden or need to overwinter them indoors.
Choose from bushing or climbing varieties of jasmine. Both are prolific bloomers, producing sweet-smelling flowers in spring. Some varieties are evergreen or semi-evergreen, which means they’ll add color to the garden in winter.
Arabian jasmine (Jasminum sambac) is a bushing, evergreen variety that is hardy to zones 9 through 11. For more temperate climates, look for Dwarf Jasmine, hardy up to Zone 6.
You can grow all jasmine varieties in containers to overwinter indoors once pruned back.
Lilies are known for their showy flowers and wide range of habitats. Islamic gardens were known to include lilies and narcissus flowers as part of their display. Choosing the right lilies for your garden depends on your climate.
If you’ve chosen to design a Middle Eastern garden for your own hot, dry climate, choose lilies or other bulbs that are drought and heat tolerant. Some examples include:
- Canna lilies (Canna indica)
- Daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva)
- Bearded iris (Iris × germanica)
- Resurrection Lily (Lycoris squamigera)
- Madonna Lily (Lilium candidum)
- Persian lilies (Fritillaria persica)
- Lily of the Nile / African lilies (Agapanthus africanus)
If you’re planting a Middle Eastern garden in a damper or more temperate climate, then feel free to choose from the wide variety of lilies and flowers that do well in your area. Remember, the key to an Islamic garden is the structure, not the plant species.
Some likely candidates include:
- Calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica)
- Wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides)
- yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum)
- Blue flag iris (Iris versicolor)
- Snake’s head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris)
- Summer snowflakes (Leucojum vernum)
- Turk’s Cap Lily (Lilium superbum)
Middle Eastern gardens are all about a sensory experience, and nothing delivers fragrance like roses. These scented blooms are highly symbolic in Islam. Damask roses (Rosa × damascene) are known for their fine perfume and are normally the type harvested to make rose water.
Like lilies, choose rose varieties that grow well in your climate. Some roses for hot, dry climates include Knock-out Roses and China roses. For hot and humid climates, choose English roses and Floridbundas.
Cucumbers and Melons
Cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) are mentioned in the Quran and often integrated into Middle Eastern gardens. Cucumbers offer a fresh, thirst-slaking treat in any hot, arid climate.
But that’s not all they offer. When trained up on trellises, they also offer quick-growing shade that cools the garden.
Look for cucumbers that best fit your climate. There are many varieties available.
Cucumbers are a type of melon, as well. These plants all add shade and edible fruits to your Islamic-style garden.
Melons to consider planting are cantaloupes, honeydew, and small watermelons.
You’ll find Middle Eastern gardens in most every country in the world, and you’ll find the important elements of this style frequently incorporated into gardens in every climate.
You can easily recreate you own slice of paradise, even if your region isn’t suitable to Middle Eastern plants. Once you have the structural elements of enclosure, symmetry, and water, you can use any fruit or shade trees suitable to your growing zone. Aromatic herbs and flowers dotted around paths will complete your garden.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in March 2021 and has been completely updated.